25 Aug 2017

Ōhāriu candidates scramble after Dunne's table-flip

11:29 am on 25 August 2017

Brett Hudson is new to the art of asking people to vote for him.

Brett Hudson and Greg O'Connor

National Ōhāriu candidate Brett Hudson, left, and Labour candidate Greg O'Connor Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch / VNP / Phil Smith

The National candidate has run for two elections in Ōhāriu, both times asking the party's supporters not to vote for him and to back United Future leader Peter Dunne instead. The deal helped secure National a valuable support partner in 2014.

However, Mr Dunne's shock exit this week has upended the race, forcing National, Labour and the Greens to completely re-evaluate their strategies in the Wellington seat.

Like most, Mr Hudson did not see the shake-up coming and he's had to pull together a whole new game plan with little warning.

"Because it's a sudden change, it requires a level of intensity that a planned, longer campaign would've done differently," he says.

On paper, Ōhāriu is a true blue seat. Last election, about 19,000 people gave National their party vote. Labour couldn't muster 9000.

After deliberately keeping a low-profile for so long, Mr Hudson risks not being able to shrug off the "Mr Cellophane" act. It's not uncommon to encounter voters who don't know his name. One Johnsonville man, who initially referred to "the woman from National" asked, "Who is he? I've never seen him once."

What was once an asset is now a potential liability - and Mr Hudson knows it.

"[Voters] should feel that we're hungry for it," he says.

"No one wants to vote for someone who is acting like they either don't care or don't think they need to."

As such he's ramping up door-knocking efforts. Given the time pressure, he's not targetting undecided or swing voters. Instead, he's specifically seeking out National supporters to ask for not just one, but two ticks.

"I think, by and large, they're just looking for a reason to give me their vote. That could be as simple as just meeting me," he says.

Mr Hudson has ordered a host of new billboards with his face front and centre. His photo now appears on about 20 such signs around the area, alongside roughly 100 generic National billboards.

He is also planning "mark two of the Hudson letter" - revising his initial instructions to voters.

"I'm confident," he says. "But there's a lot of work to be done."

Labour candidate Greg O'Connor was also blindsided by news of Mr Dunne's departure.

The former Police Association head had looked a sure bet to win the seat. A poll last week gave him 48 percent of the vote - well ahead of Mr Dunne on 34 and Mr Hudson on 14.

In fact, he'd wondered whether the poll might prompt National to pull out of the race to clear the way for Mr Dunne; instead, it was the other way round.

Mr O'Connor said his local committee was at first elated by the news, but he had to warn them: "Guys, things didn't get easier, they just got harder."

"The initial reaction - if you saw my texts - everyone thought that all of a sudden I'd won.

"People are under the impression it's all over as a contest, but actually the contest has just opened up. The centre-right, which was split, has now consolidated."

As he wanders Johnsonville Shopping Centre, his supporters offer their congratulations. A security guard slaps his hand on Mr O'Connor's shoulder. "You must be happy now?"

Mr O'Connor pauses. "Well, noooo. The hard work just continues."

His big fear is that his supporters stay at home on 23 September, believing he'll now win easily.

"The All Blacks had a big headstart on the Australians over the weekend and they nearly got run down.

"Four weeks, as we've seen, is a blimmin' long time."

Labour faces another risk too. The Greens have rejoined the table, fronting Tane Woodley as a candidate and potentially splitting the vote on the left.

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The Green Party's Tane Woodley, left, and Mr O'Connor at a meet-the-candidates event. Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

Mr O'Connor did not think that would hurt him.

"We have no control over this, so there's no point worrying about it. We'll just work harder."

United Future has selected Bale Nadakuitavuki as a replacement for Mr Dunne to stand in Ōhāriu. NZ First's Lisa Close, ACT's Andie Moore and Jessica Hammond Doube of the Opportunities Party are also standing.